Great idea or privacy concern? Feds, tech giants discussing use of smartphone tracking for social-distancing modeling

Are you complying with calls for social distancing? Keeping six feet or more away from others, strangers or not? Only your smartphone may know for sure — and that means the tech giants can find out, and so can the government, in a general manner. The Washington Post reports that federal officials are working with smartphone providers and the tech industry to model compliance with coronavirus advice, although only in aggregated statistical form.

For now, some might say. Is this the start of Big Coronabrother?

The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.

Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection, according to three people familiar with the effort, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the project is in its early stages.

Analyzing trends in smartphone owners’ whereabouts could prove to be a powerful tool for health authorities looking to track coronavirus, which has infected more than 180,000 people globally. But it’s also an approach that could leave some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it’s implemented, given the sensitivity when it comes to details of their daily whereabouts. Multiple sources stressed that — if they proceed — they are not building a government database.

They don’t call it an electronic leash for nothing. The ease and convenience of mapping applications has led most consumers of smartphones to default into providing precise tracking information from their devices. This is almost always entirely benign, and under normal circumstances isn’t necessarily even remarkable. Law enforcement can get access to that data for specific individuals, but only in the same manner as it can get access to other data — through subpoenas and probable cause.

This isn’t being used for that kind of specificity — and it wouldn’t make much sense to use it any other way. Every source for the Post’s article takes pains to note that the data will be aggregated for statistical use and “anonymized,” stripped of individual identification. The idea is to improve the models for COVID-19 transmission and prevention, with an eye to updating advice and public response policies as the crisis unfolds:

At the White House, an official at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the government is “encouraged by American technology companies looking to leverage aggregated, anonymized data to glean key insights for covid-19 modeling efforts.”

The official added those insights might “help public health officials, researchers, and scientists improve their understanding of the spread of covid-19 and transmission of the disease.”

Will this kind of data actually help? It might not be timely enough for this pandemic. It will take time to analyze all of the movement data collected, perhaps months or years, in order to draw lessons about better precision in preventing viral spread and flattening transmission curves. It could help develop better models for the next outbreak, and as long as we have global trade and travel with countries that feature “wet markets,” the next outbreak is inevitable. At least that time we would have a more rational basis for public policy if this data proves useful.

People have good reason to be nervous about government acquiring more and more of their data from tech giants, including and especially location data. However, that’s more of an issue for targeting individuals, not for a Big Brother police state. Consider the resources it would take to track everyone through systems like this, especially in real time, which isn’t needed or even useful for the research purposes of this effort. It’s simply impossible to accomplish, let alone react in enough time to deal with transgressors in that manner. There are over 300 million people in this country, and not nearly enough eyeballs to keep up with that kind of data.

For that matter, we might have trouble keeping up with electronic home-detention systems for actual surveillance. Those systems are not fail-proof in normal circumstances, and now that some jurisdictions are emptying out jails, the upsurge in use of these systems will tax already-stressed law enforcement resources to keep up with violators. That presents a real problem as we err on the side of caution to keep jails from filling up — which is another reason why we’re not going to see Big Coronabrother looking for reasons to overcrowd holding pens.

Still, this reminds us yet again just how much of our privacy we surrender when we sign up for free services on our computers and our smartphones. As I have often advised, if the service is free, you’re not the customer. If that makes some uncomfortable, then either do without the service or find a way to pay for it without allowing intrusive data trawling.